Know Your History, Know Yourself

Looking back is looking inside yourself; knowing your history helps you to know yourself.

I like looking back. I have photos placed throughout my home that help me travel to the past. And recently, after a major downsizing and move to a smaller home footprint, I created nostalgia shelves that hold photos of my mother and father, my husband and I as newlyweds, my children and grandchildren and tokens from my children’s childhood. And of course, they make me nostalgic.

Know Your History, Know Yourself

That’s a concept! —someone might say—a concept you have to be prepared for. Because nostalgia is both pleasure and sadness—feelings that come simultaneously as the past rises in memory and tugs us back to experiences we often wish we could have again. Like today. A close friend’s daughter gave birth to her first child, and being “modern and up-to-date,” her labor was reported to us in a series of text messages. I thought of her off and on all day, but I also remembered my own labors.

There were no cell phones then and we truly surprised everyone when my husband finally sprinted from the delivery room to call and announce the birth of our daughter, her weight and length, hair and eye color. It would be weeks before there were photos for far away friends and relatives. To see her you had to stop over and visit!

(Obviously, for others of us, nostalgia sometimes brings pain. The plethora of memoirs is a testament to that. But sometimes going back is necessary for healing. We pull from the past those things that helped us get to where we are now and we honor that.)

But though we have the amazing ability to garner information from the internet (which I have done for this post) and to live other people’s lives through platforms like Facebook–truly living, plunging into, experiencing and finally understanding our own lives is what we’re here for. So let’s make that happen.

How do we do that? Some answers would include meditation or prayer. My husband would advocate giving of ourselves to others.  

1. So let’s talk to each other. It’s a common complaint among my generation that people are focusing two much on their “little machines” and not looking across the table into the eyes of those they care about. I could fill this post with photos of moms walking babies and talking on their phones. The ultimate would be the wedding ceremony where the bride and groom are on their phones—only looking up now and again to exchange their vows. What happened to falling into each others’ eyes?

2. And let’s make more of an effort to engage on a bigger level. I so admire families that are separated by distance, but who make the point of weekly phone calls (with or without a “face-time” component), and who share both their joys and their sorrows with family members. That’s the glue that holds us together. Sharing the negatives. Internet platforms often bend to the positive side of things. Ain’t my life grand? Look at me–look at what I’m doing. But when they walk away from the “picture” of that life, what is it really? Because we want each person’s life to have a solid base, one that can bear you up when you encounter illness, divorce, money problems, death. True relationships save lives.

3. And for the purpose of this post, knowing your history and thus knowing what positive experiences helped “build” you into the person you are should be shared within your family. If my older brother went back, he would find books and music. Bookshelves in his room held volumes that I borrowed and read and he haunted a local store that sold records. There he listened to classical music and over the years became a lover and purchaser of thousands of recordings. His life work: professor of English literature. My younger brother would find baseball, hockey and other sports–and music. He has worked in the music business since graduating from college and of course still loves and participates in sports.

I would find books, books and more books. My history is welded to reading, writing and teaching. My mother shared her love of books with me and I shared them with my children. Nostalgia, nostalgia. Here are some examples of the very early reading that helped “build” my life. I am forever grateful to my mother. She knew what she was doing.

The Maida Books. This was a series that my mother owned. Written by Inez Haynes Gillmore Irwin, they first appeared in 1910 with Maida’s Little Shop. I still remember being comfy on the living room sofa reading this book and often telling my mother how much I loved it. The Maida books reflected Irwin’s belief in feminism and social change. Maida’s wealthy father provides Maida and her friends with a series of alternative environments for living and learning. My older daughter read those in the series that my mother owned, the covers fragile and old. Today she proudly cares for them.

Anne of Green Gables. This series is the favorite of my other daughter who owns all the books and fulfilled a lifetime dream last summer when she and her family visited Prince Edward Island. Written by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, the first title appeared in 1908. It is the story of Anne Shirley, age 11, a young orphan girl who is mistakenly sent to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a middle-aged brother and sister who have a farm on PEI and who had intended to adopt a boy to help them. The novel recounts how Anne steals the hearts of the Cuthberts and everyone else in the small town. An August article in the New York Times by Ann Mah recounts the emotional experience of loving the books and visiting PEI.

Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys. Louisa May Alcott wasn’t sure she wanted to write a book for young girls, but utilizing shared experiences with her real life sisters, she created four of the most endearing characters ever created—Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy. This novel was published in 1868 and follows the lives of the four sisters as they navigated growing up during the American Civil War. Alcott went on to write Little Men and Jo’s Boys after the success of the first book. My mother loved the books and named me after the Beth character.

The Boxcar Children Series. Written by Gertrude Chandler Warren, the books are about Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny, four orphaned brothers and sisters who mysteriously appear in a small town on a warm summer night. No one knows who they are or where they came from. Frightened to live with a grandfather they have never met, the children make a home for themselves in an old abandoned red boxcar they discover in the woods. From there readers discover the strength and creativity of these children to live on their own in their forest home. One critic wrote: All elementary school children will love this book series. Every child dreams of running away and living in the woods at some time, and these kids have done it. Fantasy fulfilled through a book!

Thanks for reading and looking back with me. Knowing where we have been is the best way to help us decide where we want to go and how we want to get there. If you have a book that helped pave your life journey, please share. Below is a cartoon from the New Yorker that I am thrilled I found. I remember coming across it and saying YES THAT’S HOW IT WAS. Of course the child is reading Little Women.

Know Your History, Know Yourself

Thanks to Perry Barlow for his nostalgic cartoon.

5 thoughts on “Know Your History, Know Yourself

  1. Yes, we had a wonderful culture of reading in our household as children. Beth has concisely described my brother John’s room of books and my love of sports and music. But somehow music took over my heart when I first plucked chords on a guitar and sang Beatle songs, for it is there, that I had found my passion. And after 40 some years in the music business, I look back now and see just how lucky I was to have had the opportunity and the chance to find such an exciting career. So knowing my history is indeed knowing myself, and all the gold records in the world cannot replace the experiences afforded me with friends, associates, and the successes I have been so lucky to participate in. But “looking back” is certainly a great sign post in one’s life.
    From Bill, Beth’s “younger brother”, who will always look up to his big sister.

  2. Great Blog Beth – The past can not be changed (only in the mind). Knowing your history (remembering it correctly) is a very positive learning experience. With an open mind we can use our past (history) to relive happy positive moments and to keep unpleasant ones where they belong, in the past.

    Reading books is good for the mind because it forces us to use our imagination which of course is the foundation for forming ideas. It forces the reader to have original thinking which is inherently individual.

    • Your comments are great, Mel. Thanks so much. It is important to know our history and to know where to keep things–the pleasant and the unpleasant. It helps with living an authentic life. I love your take on the imagination and forming ideas. That’s a great topic for another post. Beth

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